Lonar is one of Maharashtra’s best-kept secrets. Home to the Earth’s only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock, Lonar is named after the demon, Lonasura, and is ringed by fascinating temples, including one with erotic sculptures reminiscent of Khajuraho. The crater was formed fifty-two thousand years ago, when a meteor crashed into the earth at an estimated speed of 90,000kmph, weighing 2 million tonnes. It gouged a hole that was 1.8km wide and 150m deep. Over time, the jungle took over, and a perennial stream transformed the base into a tranquil, green locale.
And yet, for all of its rareness, surprisingly few have heard of Lonar Lake apart from locals and occasional trekkers. From the pack of meteors that plummet towards the Earth – anywhere from 30,000 to 1,50,000 each year – this one managed to create the Earth’s largest and only hyper-velocity impact crater in basaltic rock. Lonar Lake has triggered NASA scientists and officials from the Geological Survey of India to attempt answers to questions like: Why is the lake alkaline and saline at the same time? Why does it support micro-organisms rarely found elsewhere on Earth? Why do compasses fail to work in certain parts of the crater? And what lurks at the bottom?
Most tourists come to nearby Aurangabad to visit the Ajanta and Ellora UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but never make it as far as Lonar. The four-hour drive from Aurangabad runs through picturesque villages and fields of paddy, and ends at the Government guesthouse, an excellent place to start your astronomical adventure. The path down to the lake is slippery, the quicksand on the banks making this a truly treacherous trek. But you forgive the grazed knees and lost shoes for the sheer joy of trekking through the lush jungle, of finding curious minerals like the ancient glass formation maskelynite, and stumbling upon centuries-old, abandoned temples that are now inhabited only by insects and bats.
The forest itself is a haven for birdwatchers, with several species of migratory and local birds such as shelduck, black-winged stilts, brahminy ducks, red-wattled lapwings, blue jays, bayaweavers, hoopoes, barn owls, golden oriole, larks, tailorbirds, parakeet and peafowl. Gazelle, langur, bats, mongoose, barking deer and chinkara also inhabit the forest, along with snakes, scorpions, monitor lizards and brilliantly coloured insects and amphibians.
Legends about a local demon and the inexplicable properties of the water have made this lake a religious draw. Photo credit: Matt Paish/ Flickr/ Creative Commons (bit.ly/1jxQJMa)
But it’s at the lake that sci-fi meets religion meets Indian folklore. Take a walk around the temples, each with a legend attached to its name: the partially submerged Shankar Ganesha temple, noteworthy for its rectangular Shiva idol; the Ram Gaya temple, named for Lord Rama’s departure; and the Kamalja Devi temple, which doesn’t see much of a crowd, comes to life during Navratri. Your tiny pilgrimage ends with Gomukh, also known as Dhara or Sita Nahani temple (Sita is said to have bathed here), accessible only by an arduous climb. The architecture is unremarkable, but the temple houses a kund into which flows the mysterious, perennial freshwater spring that feeds the lake below. The most significant temple, however, sits in the town. The Daitya Sudan temple is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, slayer of the demon Lonasura (who also lent his name to the village). Locals claim that the crater was the demon’s den and that the lake’s murky water results from its spilled blood. The temple itself is reminiscent of Khajuraho, with erotic sculptures of copulating couples and ravaging beasts.
The views of this mighty crater lake, the only one of its kind in the world, are bound to give wings to your imagination. Images of ancient civilisations and mighty warriorson gold-plated vimaanas flying over the lake come to mind. Perhaps, there lies a brahmastra within the bowels of Lonar Lake? Perhaps some ancient, extraterrestrial treasure that holds the secrets to our universe?
Make the trip. Indiana Jones would approve.
Lonar is a small town in Buldhana district of Maharashtra, about 140kms/4 hours east of Aurangabad. It is located 370kms/9 hours east of Mumbai.
Aurangabad is the closest airport to Lonar, with direct, daily flights from Delhi and Mumbai. More than 20 trains run between Mumbai and Aurangabad via Manmad Junction. A post-monsoon rail journey offers stunning views of misty mountains, lush fields and waterfalls. The central bus stand in Aurangabad is about 1km from the train station. Buses to Lonar ply via Jalna and take about 5 hours. MSRTC, Shivneri and private buses run overnight services from Mumbai to Aurangabad (Rs650 for non AC, Rs750 for AC sleeper). Taxis can also be hired from Aurangabad.
March to May are the hottest months in Maharashtra, and temperatures can climb upwards of 40°C. Occasional thunderstorms however, provide respite from the heat. Winter (Oct-Feb) is mild, with clear skies, gentle breezes and average daytime temperatures that range between 12-25°C. Monsoons begin in June and can go on up to September. The maximum amount of rainfall is expected in July.
Lonar’s main attraction is the lake and the temples that surround it. Aurangabad city, 140km away, has several historic monuments such as Bibi ka Maqbara, the oft-ignored Aurangabad caves and the medieval watermill Panchakki. Within Aurangabad district are the UNESCO World Heritage caves of Ajanta and Ellora; Daulatabad, also known as Deogiri, the famous capital city set up by Mohammad bin Tughlaq; Khuldabad, also known as the Valley of Saints; the famous Grishneshwar temple; and the Pitalkhora caves.
The MDTC Holiday Resort is one of the few options in the area, and is decently located 1km from Lonar town centre. (Paryatan Sankul, Lonar; 07260-221602/ 07260-221602; Rs1,800 for an AC double room; maharashtratourism.gov.in). A better option would be to stay in Aurangabad and drive to Lonar Lake for a day trip. Hotel Manmandir Executive is a decent budget option (C5, Manmandir Terminus, Adalat road, Aurangabad; Rs1,800 per day for an AC double room. See www.manmandirmotels.com/tariff.html). For a mid-range budget, choose Windsor Castle, which serves good food, and has modern amenities (Town Centre, Jalgaon Road, CIDCO, Aurangabad; 0240-2484818, 2484177, 2486011/ 91-98500-08222; ₹3,900 per day for an AC double room. See hotelwindsorcastle.com).
Guides charge upwards of ₹800 for the day, and are worth it. Wear good walking shoes and carry drinking water, sunscreen, insect repellent, a cap, sunglasses and quick-dry clothes. Mobile network is patchy within the crater. There are dhabas and tea stalls at Lonar, and the temples have potable water. There’s an ATM near the bus station.
Editor’s note: Corrections were made to a previous version of this article.
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